When it comes to my food choices, I am a simple girl. I tend to prefer foods that are prepared with a comfort feel and don’t look like they need an Ikea-like set of assembly instructions in order to be able to eat them. However, I have a confession to make — I actually really envy my friends that can pick up on so many intricacies of fine dining dishes that make them so suitable to be included in the usual “blogger” dinners.
And then one day, I got my turn. Kevin from The Mighty Rib sent me an email asking if I would be interested in attending a dinner at a small restaurant in a quiet seaside town north of Boston — Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport. One quick look at the menu and a google search of reviews later, I marked the date in my calendar to join Kevin, Tara, and Rachel on the excursion.
The restaurant itself is small, cozy, and comfortable. There is dark wood — a personal favorite — along with high-back booths, dim lighting, and glassware that quickly became a conversation piece at our table. With a space this warm and inviting, it wouldn’t have required anything too fancy to keep me happy through the meal. Especially with a great glass of wine on the side. And oh, was there wine. A 2005 Convento San Francisco Temperanillo Ribera Del Duero, to be exact. This wine was so good, I not only started googling it immediately on my phone — I had to snap a picture of the label just in case I needed it for future wine shopping reference.
The folks at Ceia, including Executive Chef Billy Brandolini, took great care in designing a menu for our dinner that night, making sure to give us a well-rounded taste of their talent and creativity, while maintaining a sense of coastal European romance in their dishes. With just the first dip into the tapenade starter, I had a feeling that by the end of our meal there would be no way I could be left hungry or unsatisfied.
Next came the salad featuring baby beets and butternut squash, key flavors of the fall. I’m not a fan of beets, but in the interest of giving the dish an honest shot — and to see if maybe I could like beets after all — I gave it a go. A couple bites later, the 5 year-old in me decided that I would like the salad more sans beets and pushed them off to the side. And I did enjoy every single bite of the butternut squash with some small bites of a Cabrales blue cheese, strong enough to add just a bit of a bite to the otherwise mild flavors of the dish.
The first of the main courses was a pasta dish — a fresh pappardelle with a local rabbit, Dijon and veal ragout, that featured a Brillat mousse and mushrooms foraged by the chef himself. This was the dish I was perhaps the most excited about — freshly foraged mushrooms? Yes. Please. A slight moment of humor came when I thought I had been cheated out of my fair share of mushrooms. However, what I had thought was the rabbit was in fact the mushrooms. Thick, meaty, woodsy-tasting, delicious mushrooms.
Next up was a cod with garbanzo mash and creamed chard. This is exactly the type of dish I would expect from a restaurant with a Portuguese heritage. The cod was excellent, perfectly seasoned and seared, but I definitely expected more flavor in the chard and garbanzo mash. But again, it was a new food for me and could understand why it was a favorite for Kevin and Tara.
While we were expecting the restaurant’s special suckling pig, Chef Andrew Beddeos didn’t feel the dish that night was up to his expectations. So instead, we were treated to a ribeye dish. Admittedly, I was a little bit bummed that I wasn’t getting to try the suckling pig, but the Midwestern girl in me was easily mollified with the substitution dish. And what a substitution it was — in the words of my good friend Kathleen, this meat went down “like buttahhhh”. But not to be overlooked was a small bit of fresh lobster alongside the meat and a garnish of some home potatoes and an egg. While I could have done without the potatoes and egg on the side, the meat was worth the effort required to push them aside. I wouldn’t mind coming back to give this a try for brunch sometime.
Thanks to my pre-dining googling, I was kind of hoping we would have a chance to try the house’s banana brulee, about which I had read only good things. But instead we were treated to a Brillat-Savarin cheese with a garnish of an apricot chutney — different, but anyone who knows me knows that cheese for dessert is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. The cheese was smooth but strong, a perfect finish to an already exceptional meal. Add in a small glass of Vin Santo, and all was right with the world.
Aside from the outstanding food we had enjoyed, what made the trip even more rewarding was the careful service that was not just provided to our group, but also to the other patrons that the busy-body in me had observed in the restaurant that evening. As the stepdaughter of a successful caterer and restaurateur, one thing that I’ve learned is that service does matter. As much as I’m inclined to wipe down every dinner plate I serve, genuine care in providing service cannot be faked and will make or break the majority of dining experiences. And Ceia nailed it. Hands down.
While I typically favor things on the South Shore, it won’t take much of an arm twist to get me to make the trip back up to Newburyport. With a James Beard-recognized chef at the helm in the kitchen, I can’t even begin to imagine the good things that will come from Ceia in the future.
Wondering what Kevin, Tara, and Rachel thought of our dinner? Check out their sites for more!
Disclosure: The dinner and drinks were complimentary, courtesy of Ceia Kitchen + Bar; however the opinions and viewpoints expressed here are solely my own.